Saturday, January 12, 2013

Virgin Prunes – If I Die, I Die (Rough Trade, 1982)

Now here we have something genuinely interesting, unique and original. Considering the wide and more than often, very weird scope of their output, to try to classify or confine them under the “Goth” tag seems somehow insulting, and like many bands at the time, it seems wildly unlikely that they would concur anyhow. To attempt to describe their work as anything more specific than what falls under the very wide umbrella of bizarre art-rock is probably self-defeating – it simply doesn’t work.  That is not to say however, that what The Virgin Prunes would produce was frequently very grim, desolate and grotesque. That said, they certainly belong here, but people who understand “Goth” only as something that sounds like The Sisters of Mercy or Fields of the Nephilim would likely find their material extremely strange and difficult to get a grip on.

However, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

The tale we need to tell of the band, begins quite strangely indeed with something called Lypton Village. Don’t for one moment go thinking that this was a band however, rather it seems to have been a kind of odd little tribe of the more arty young Dublin folk, who finding their existence in that city rather more than mundane, retreated into a sort of fantasy land where everyone got a new identity. And so, Fionan Hanvey became Gavin Friday, Derek Rowan became Guggi, his brother Trevor Rowan became Strongman, Daniel Figgis became Haa-Lacka Bintti, Paul Hewson became Bono Vox and David Evans assumed the moniker of The Edge.

If those last two names seem familiar, then well they should, since they would of course go on to form U2, one of the biggest bands in rock history. Strange as it now may seem, in the early days, both U2 and The Virgin Prunes would often share a stage together. Indeed, The Edge’s brother & U2’s original guitarist Dik Evans would later join Virgin Prunes. I must agree that in retrospect the combination superficially appears very odd, but then that’s probably due to the fact that most people have long since forgotten that U2 started out as a very good, albeit very accessible post-punk act.

U2 – Out of Control (1980)

It wouldn’t last of course – U2’s increasingly mainstream musical tendencies would soon cause the two bands to drift apart. I suspect, although can’t find any direct evidence to support the hypothesis, is that U2’s increasingly Christian inclinations by the time of their second album October (Island, 1981 )may also have had a part to play.

But enough of U2 – you can read about them anywhere! Back to Virgin Prunes. 

Virgin Prunes release their debut EP Twenty Tens (Baby, 1980), three years after their formation. The cover art of a small girl playing with her bunny wabbits certainly seems innocent enough – almost like an illustration from a Victorian children’s story. However, combine this with the band’s name, the unsettling and generally sombre musical tone and song titles like “Twenty-Tens( I’ve been Smoking all Night)”, “Revenge” or “The Children are Crying”, and it’s impossible to ignore that there is something very subversive, and perhaps even unwholesome going on here. It’s probably safe to say that Gavin Friday’s happy warblings of “I hear the children crying as they all die of fever” was never going to get the band a shot on the Eurovision Song Contest at any time soon.

The Twenty Tens EP

The following year saw the band release the Moments and Mime (Despite Straight Lines 7” (Rough Trade, 1981). Once again, the front cover art appears innocent enough, although the back cover gives us a much better idea that things are far from normal here, and that impression is confirmed by the B-Side track “In the Greylight” which serves to complete the impression that we’re no longer in Kansas anymore Toto.

In the Grey Light

The same year sees the band start to release the “New Form of Beauty” series in four parts (Rough Trade, 1981-82), its name itself perhaps a manifesto of intent.  These will all be later compiled into a single CD (A New Form of Beauty, New Rose, 1993), of which sample tracks like “Come to Daddy” clearly indicate that we’re not destined for safe or familiar territory quite yet. Much strangeness remains. Meanwhile, drummer Haa-Lacka Bintti has left the band and gone off to do his own project with the disconcertingly monikered Princess Tinymeat. He is replaced by Mary D’Nellon.

Come to Daddy

These early gigs must have been quite something to behold.  Jonny Slut (later to become keyboardist with Specimen) describes his first encounter with Virgin Prunes shortly after he arrived in London:

“Saw the Virgin Prunes the next week though, they blew my head off a bit. That was the best gig I’ve seen in my life…The whole audience when they played at Heaven…David came on and did his spastic stuff and I thought oh, this ain’t that brilliant! Then Gavin and Guggi came in their black and white dresses and the audience were like that (holds mouth open for impromptu dental appraisal)…honestly, it was quite frightening, we were just like that for half an hour, no-one in the audience clapped, we didn’t know what to do. They went off and came back on in their loin cloths with their fruit and started chucking tables about, demonically chanting…it was just brilliant – the best.”
(Gothic Rock, Mercer, Pegusus, 1992)

And so we arrive in 1982 with The Virgin Prunes’ first full length album, If I Die, I Die. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of my favourite albums of all time, at once hauntingly beautiful and deeply unsettling, and effect only added to by the band’s very unorthodox vocal stylistics. There’s something oddly faux-oriental about the guitar on this album that doesn’t come out on the band's other releases. Indeed, after listening to it many years ago after consuming something hallucinogenic and almost certainly illegal, I had to give it a rest for a few months because it kept conjuring up recurring mental images of insane Fu Manchuesque vivisectors.

We begin with the yearningly desolate “Ulakanakulot / Decline and Fall” which sets the tone for the rest of the album – it’s very clear that this is not going to be a happy journey.

“See the children play by, running try to touch the sky,
When one falls you hear a cry
‘You’re dead, you’re dead, you must die’
‘Take a dream and fly away, take a dream and fly away’
She will call
They will wait for you not I, they will wait for you not I
See me crawl
And sometimes I feel so old
I never smile nor do cry
Shadows flicker from above.”

Sweet Home Under White Clouds” follows and is similarly bleak, although perhaps less harrowing than the earlier version that appeared on A New Form of Beauty 2, and next comes the very enigmatic “Bau-Dachong” which is anyone’s guess as to what it might be about.

At this point we arrive at “Baby Turns Blue”, a happy little ditty about drug overdose, and of course, the band’s big single, still packing out dance floors in Goth clubs to this day. To judge from the behaviour of some DJs, it would be easy to believe that it and the “Pagan Love Song” single (Rough Trade, 1982) were the only songs The Virgin Prunes ever wrote. Indeed, back when I was DJing in the 90s, it got so over-requested that I actually started refusing to play it. Nevertheless, it remains the cheeriest and most upbeat If I Die, I Die would get. I was also released as a 12” remix The Faculties of a Broken Heart (Rough Trade, 1982).

The Baby Turns Blue 7" - that commercial success would 
elude the band seems simply inconceivable

After this we unfortunately hit the sole low point of the album “Ballad of the Man”. What the fuck were they thinking? The nicest I can imagine is that the song was a deliberate attempt to take the piss out of contemporary folk music. Whatever their reasoning, it very much spoils the flow of an otherwise near-flawless album.

Fortunately things quickly pick up again with “Walls of Jericho”, a song so strong that it could easily have been a single in its own right. The puzzling Caucasian Walk follows before the album closes with the excellent  “Theme for Thought” with its reflections on individuality and quoting of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

“He did not wear his scarlet robe, for blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands when they found him with the dead.”

Ulakanakulot  / Decline and Fall (Live)

Sweet Home Under White Clouds


Baby Turns Blue

Ballad of the Man (not live but WTF cares?)

Walls of Jericho

Caucasian Walk

Theme for Thought

After this, the band produce the Heresie EP, making them one of the very few bands from the scene to receive an arts grant for a commissioned work. Work on a second full length album Sons Find Devils (Not to be confused with the video of the same name) is commenced but never released and in 1984 the original band begins to dissolve. A final studio album, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed (Baby Records, 1986) appears after which Gavin Friday departs for a solo career, effectively ending Virgin Prunes forever.  Some of the remaining members will eventually reform as The Prunes, but it is reportedly a much tamer beast than its notorious ancestor.

Track Listing
i.                     Ulakanakulot
ii.                   Decline and Fall
iii.                  Sweet Home Under White Clouds
iv.                 Bau-Dachong
v.                   Baby Turns Blue
vi.                 Ballad of the Man
vii.                Walls of Jericho
viii.              Caucasian Walk
ix.                 Theme For Thought

Later versions on CD include a variety of bonus tracks, most notably Pagan Love Song, but also Dave-id is Dead, Fado, Chance of a Lifetime and Yeo.

Line Up: Gavin Friday, Guggi, Dave-id Busarus (vocals), Dik Evans (guitar), Strongman (bass), Mary D’Nellon (drums)

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic band , lucky to see many times with the Birthday Party and Theatre of hate...true performance art. Records are great, but the stage show brought them to life.